Saturday, September 20, 2014

Turning Points: Little Rock Nine & Sons of Liberty & A House Divided

Turning Points is a series of graphic novels from Aladdin Paperbacks, that tell about important moments and events in US history. These books are portable and affordable, and I have had them on my "to read" pile for a while now, so there is no time like to present to see how good they are. All three of these books I review below were written by Marshall Poe, a writer and historian known for his work at The Atlantic and also as editor in chief of the New Books Network.

Little Rock Nine details the ongoing struggle in 1957 about integrating the public schools in Arkansas. Because of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, school integration was national law, but the state laws in Arkansas forbid it. This conflict is embodied by looking at two families, a common conceit in these books I found, which makes the issues both more pressing and personal. The two families, of course are black and white, and the main focus is on their children. Walter McNally, a 16 year old white boy, listens to his family squabbles over the integration. His father is a lawyer fighting for the rights of black people while his grandfather is the conservative foil who argues for keeping things as they are. Poe makes these characters somewhat sympathetic and human, but he also makes sure that they wear their views on their sleeves.
There is more nuance when looking at Thomas Johnson's family. He is a 15 year old black boy, and he took part in an attempt to integrate the schools the year prior. Of course, he wants to be treated equally, but he and his family have experienced the intense backlash from those who want to keep things as it was, and they are hesitant to deal with all the potential degradation and violence that came with social action. I appreciated that civil rights issues were here considered with more attention to the context, because I think for some students these matters are such cut and dried, facile decisions and I feel they should see how much of an actual struggle such change was.

All the reviews I have read about Little Rock Nine have been positive. Snow Wildsmith wrote, "Poe’s insistance [sic] on showing as many sides of a story as possible succeeds admirably here, resulting in two main character [sic] who are believable boys caught up in a storm they don’t quite understand and aren’t sure that they’re strong enough to face." The folks at the Historical Novel Society called it "exciting and historically accurate." Marya Jansen-Gruber offered this opinion, "This format will encourage young readers to ask questions about the civil rights movement, and the book will provide an excellent platform for a class segment about the Little Rock Nine."

The art in this volume is by Ellen Lindner. She is a cartoonist and illustrator known for her Ignatz Award nominated webcomic The Black Feather Falls and various other comics projects. Her artwork is somewhat cartoonish, but her storytelling is very clear. I also admire her ability to depict the emotions through her figures' faces and postures.

The artwork in the next two books is by Leland Purvis, whose other graphic novel works include the Resistance trilogy and a biography of Neils Bohr. His work in this volume is a combination of strong ink lines and sketch-like illustrations. I think he captures the historical flavor through costumes and backgrounds, though sometimes it is difficult to keep track of which character is which.

Sons of Liberty follows a period of US history from 1768-1776, a time of great change and a number of historical events leading up to the American Revolutionary War. The entryway into this story is Nathaniel Smithfield, a fictional apprentice to Paul Revere. He is ten years old when the book begins, and over time he meets a number of prominent patriots, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, and is witness to many events, such as the Boston Tea Party and combat in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Although this book is a piece of historical fiction and uses much original dialogue, there are a number of sections based in real accounts that feature first-hand descriptions of events.
Nathaniel throws a pretty mean rock.
The drama in this story is heightened by family tensions, with Nathaniel butting heads with his Loyalist father. In a clever way, this familial conflict mirrors the thought process of the colonists to rebel against England, and over time, the family dynamics shift and events cause people's minds to change. Even though I was pretty familiar with the actual events, I felt myself becoming concerned for the characters' lives. There is a lot to digest in the book, in terms of the sheer amount of facts, events, and characters, but I feel that the story is quite compelling and interesting.

The reviews I have read about Sons of Liberty are pretty mixed. Snow Wildsmith felt that this book was relatively weak, "mainly due to Poe attempting to cover too much time in too short of a book." The Historical Novel Society commented positively that it "gets to the heart of what it felt like to be a young boy in the middle of a thrilling period of history, with its conflicts, agreements and world-changing events." The Breed's Hill Institute summed it up as "an imperfect but interesting taste of history."
The third book in this series is A House Divided, set in the years leading up to the American Civil War.It follows a couple of brothers from the year 1856, Owen and Amos Bennington. They are close and very sympathetic to their parents' abolitionist rhetoric. After their parents deaths, they decide to take action and spread their message in the contentious soon-to-be state of Kansas. While there, they see just how violent and sneaky the pro-slavery contingents are, which leads them both to question how they can best help help the abolitionist cause. Younger brother Amos decides to join up with John Brown, because at least he is being proactive and taking the battle to those who would defend an unjust social system. Older brother Owen decides to go work for a politician he admires for his bold speeches, Abraham Lincoln.

The dual narratives shows two very different paths on the road to abolishing slavery, and there are a great many events enumerated in the storytelling. In addition, Purvis's artwork is less sketchy than in Sons of Liberty and includes more grey tones, which give it a more painterly sheen. The sum total of these features is an engaging set of tales that balance historical import with human emotion.

I was not able to find many reviews of A House Divided, but Snow Wildsmith praised it particularly because "one of the strongest points of this book (and of the series) is that Poe doesn’t neglect to tell both sides of a story as much as he can" and because "Purvis’ art is also stronger in this volume." I agree with her on both counts.

Previews and more information about all these Turning Points books can be found here from their publisher.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) in Words and Pictures

Economics is a vast and scary topic for many, full of mathematical formulas and arcane concepts that try to explain how finances, governments, laws, and money work. Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) tackles all of that and more in a very readable, visual, and entertaining way. It is a large, dense book, and it has many facets. It looks at the works of key theorists and contains many quotations and paraphrases from their works, such as this look at Adam Smith:
But the book is also a historical look at the major players who shaped economics theories and social policies. It examines the shifts from an agrarian economy to the effects of mechanization and consolidation of the Industrial Revolution to the competing models of capitalism and communism of the Cold War and beyond.
The historical narrative plays out until the very recent past, and the ideas become very personalized. The book takes its shots at people and practices who look at economic matters in facile or deceptive manner. It also speaks plainly about some stark realities.
In the end, this book is more than a simple delineation of economics theories. It explains those, but it situates them in historical contexts, and also describes how they have led up to contemporary conditions. It is as much a textbook as it is a commentary on modern life and even a critique of some commonly held myths that get often repeated by talking heads on television or other media. This book is very much based in facts, but it also is social commentary and a call for the reader to be informed and take action. It should also be stated that although there are some sections about other countries, the vast majority of this book is about how the US economy operates.

This graphic novel was written by Michael Goodwin, a freelancer who has traveled extensively internationally and written about a number of various topics. I felt that he editorialized throughout the book, but to me that was a welcomed practice. Too often textbooks are written as if they are wisdom passed down from above, and at least Goodwin admits where he is coming from. The artwork by Dan E. Burr is clear, strong, and emphatic, balancing a sense of humor with its informative graphics and clean storytelling. Burr has been making comics for decades and is best known for his graphic novel collaborations with James Vance, the Eisner Award winning Kings in Disguise and its sequel On the Ropes. Goodwin discusses his work on Economix in this interview with John Hogan of The Graphic Novel Reporter.

The reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a dense yet quite accessible read," going on, "Goodwin brilliantly contextualize [sic] economic theories with historical narrative, while Burr's simple but elegant illustration employs classical techniques like caricaturing politicians and symbolizing big businesses (as a gleeful factory) to help the reader visualize difficult concepts. Brett Schenker called it "one of the most important [graphic novels] of the decade," and added, "It shows that the comic medium can transcend people with funny powers and silly costumes and instead be used to educate, activate and motivate individuals to learn more about their world but also their role in it." Zenestex called it "an approachable book for anybody who wants to broaden their understanding of economics beyond what the evening news delivers."

Economix: How Our Economy Works (And Doesn't Work) was published by Abrams ComicArts, who has reviews, a teachers guide, and more here. The book's official blog is also a treasure trove of resources and information. If you are interested in economics, go check it out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leo Geo

I know that I have talked a little about books I got at this year's HeroesCon, and today I am going to look at two that are not only gorgeous to look at but also great for content learning. They are by Jon Chadurjian (aka Jon Chad), who is an instructor at at The Center for Cartoon Studies. He also wrote and drew a bunch of mini-comics and zines as well as the horrible and hilarious The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack. Unlike that graphic novel, these two books, with their sense of adventure, science content, and playful formats, are great for many age groups.

In this first book, Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth, scientist Leo Geo travels down, down, down into the Earth, along the way elucidating us about Earth facts and geology knowledge. Along with the facts, there is also some fiction in the form of fantastic creatures and an underground city from which he must escape. It's a pretty fun story in terms of plot, and the factoids along the way are interesting. Additionally, Chad packs the illustrations full of details, jokes, and characters. It's like a picture book version of Pop-Up Video in some ways, and I love this book like I loved that show.

Perhaps the most fun part of the book is its format. It is a long and skinny volume, and immediately you have to turn it 90 degrees as Leo starts his journey downward. About halfway through the book, perspective changes and you have to flip the book 180 degrees as Leo starts his journey upward. I loved the novelty of this type of reading format, and I think that adventurous readers would also appreciate this playfulness and willingness to play with space.

The reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Trever Van As called it "strange, wonderful and totally different." Rob Clough wrote, "The book rewards multiple readings, if only to soak in the sideline details and little jokes that Chad throws in on every single page. The book is tightly paced, dense, and is short enough to end without wearing out its welcome." Publishers Weekly offered their opinion that "budding scientists should find the geology fascinating, and the magic dagger fighting with monsters gives it a good story to go along with the facts."

Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth was published by Roaring Brook Press, and they provide much more information here.

This sequel actually has two titles, Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis is the one they sell it under, but if you flip the book and start from the "back," you will read Matt Data and the Cosmic Crisis. In the first narrative, Leo learns that a comet is hurtling toward his brother Matt's space station, and being a good sibling, he runs out in a rocket to rescue him. In the meantime, Matt  learns that Leo's computer is about to malfunction and he sets off with his ultra-smart and resourceful space dog, Maff, to help his brother. Along the way, each brother encounters robots, strange creatures, even space pirates who complicate their journeys. And they also drop a bunch of science knowledge about space along the way.

This book is full of detailed illustrations and wonderful asides. It also plays with gravity some, requiring the reader to turn the book in order to orient themselves. Up is not always up in space, and that fact is used to good effect in this book. This sequel is just as playful as the first volume, and what is more, it's in color:

Like its predecessor, this book has also been received well. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, writing, "Readers who carefully trace the science-minded sibs’ circuitous pathways will be rewarded with a nonstop barrage of chases, battles, goofy sight gags and silly details. They’ll also enjoy numerous meaty minilectures on topics astronomical, from how multistage rockets work and types of asteroids and stars to algebraic formulas for computing gravitational attraction and escape velocity." The School Library Journal's Marian McLeod also gave it a starred review and summed it up as "a great offering for graphic-novel enthusiasts or kids looking for a fun read." FirstThursdaysReviews added, "The colorful cartoon style illustrations will engage any reader as they follow the two different stories to the end."

Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis was also published by Roaring Brook Press, who has lots of information about the book here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Congratulations, 2014 Harvey Award Winners!

The Awards were delivered this past weekend, and big winners who have been featured on this blog are the creators of Saga who won:
  • Best Artist: Fiona Staples

  • Best Writer: Brian K. Vaughan 
  • Best Continuing or Limited Series: Saga

  • Best Cover Artist:  Fiona Staples, Saga
Sex Criminals' artist  Chip Zdarsky won Most Promising New Talent.

Paul Pope won Best Cartoonist for his work on Battling Boy.

Congratulations to all! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Julia's House for Lost Creatures

Julia's House for Lost Creatures is one of those books that I think could be a graphic novel or also could be considered a children's picture book. It certainly used sequential art conventions. Artist/writer Ben Hatke is known for his prior work on the Zita the Spacegirl series of graphic novels, and this book is published by First Second, one of the premier US publishers of graphic novels. So I am going to call it a graphic novel.

I also could call it a bunch of other things, like delightful, fun, gorgeous, and sweet. Julia has a walking house (like a cute Baba Yaga, only with a giant turtle), and she parks it in a delightful area. She loves her surroundings, but things are just too quiet. So she hangs a shingle inviting lost creatures, and soon the house is overrun with all kinds of critters: goblins, fairies, trolls, mermaids, and a dragon even!
Suddenly quiet is non-existent and chaos reigns. Julia has to hatch a plan to calm things down, and she has a clever solution that resolves matters in classic storybook fashion.
There is so much to recommend this book, from its beautiful artwork and fantastic creatures to Hatke's many humorous details that add yet another layer of joy. Finally, the plot is one I think many parents will appreciate because of the resolution where all of Julia's creatures learn a lesson.

All the reviews I have read about this book have been glowing. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Hatke steps from graphic novels (Zita the Spacegirl) to the picture-book format with aplomb, blending tropes from both worlds for a sweetly weird domestic adventure." Tasha Saecker called it "An exceptional picture book debut." Bill Boerman-Cornell wrote, "The story is good, but there are at least five other reasons why I love this book." Go click on his name and see what they are.

Julia's House for Lost Creatures was published by First Second, and they provide reviews and other resources here.

Thank you for the review copy, Gina!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth

First, let me start off that I am predisposed to like this book. I have read Jay Hosler's other comics, including The Sandwalk Adventures and Clan Apis. Additionally, I met Jay at the Sequential SmArt conference at Juniata College a couple of years ago, and got a chance to hang out, chat, and socialize with him. I even got to eat ice cream at his house afterward with a group of other folks. All this is to say that I know him a lot better than I know the typical writer/artist featured on my blog.

I should also reiterate that I love his comics. They are smart, funny, and a joy to read. This book, a sequel to The Stuff of Life, continues the narrative where scientist Bloort-183 is trying to explain life on Earth to an alien king. Their species is threatened by a disease and they think that examining life on Earth will help them find a solution. So Bloort-183 continues from speaking about DNA to talking about evolution. And whereas the first book was more a report, this one is pitched more as a presentation being made to the king and young prince. And because the latter has not really done his homework, he asks lots of clarification questions, which makes this entire enterprise much more readable and approachable. There are still some dense parts where lots of concepts and vocabulary are explained, but I think this book works overall in terms of being accessible than the first, mostly because it is pitched much more conversationally. Basically, it is Jay Hosler giving a series of funny, smart lectures via images.

Part of the reason for this reading ease is the wonderful artwork by Kevin and Zander Cannon. These two artists are masterful storytellers who are able to balance the exposition and action with a sense of humor. Their characters are vibrant and alive, and their diagrams extremely helpful and informative. Certainly the great storytelling chops they possess are on display in these pages:
The two Cannons are well known for their anthology Double Barrel, with Kevin's narrative Crater XV and Zander's Heck. They also collaborated on the science-themed graphic novels T-Minus and Bone-Sharps, Cowboys, & Thunder Lizards. Hosler is an accomplished science writer, having already published a number of other graphic novels about biology, including the aforementioned The Sandwalk Adventures and Clan Apis as well as Optical Allusions. He talks about his work on these books in this interview.

The reviews I have read about this book have been rather glowing. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "the book may not win over science-phobic readers, but it’s a solid introduction," suggesting it for "adults who want a refresher and high-school teachers searching for a simple primer." Educator Scott Hatfield concluded, "Its engaging characters, informed content, and clever illustrations make this book an excellent selection for anyone, young or old, interested in learning more about evolution." Publishers Weekly stated that by the end of the book readers will find "that they've learned a tremendous amount about earth's evolution, and have had more than their fair share of amusement in doing so."

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth was published by Hill and Wang, and they provide a preview and more here.

Monday, August 25, 2014


This year's Life of the Mind book for incoming first-year students (formerly called freshmen) at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville is Daytripper. It is the first time a graphic novel has been selected for this reading, selected to go with the general theme of Creativity for the year. In a horrible twist of fate, for the first time in six years I did not get to be a discussion leader for this book, even though it was a graphic novel, and by now you have surely realized I am very much interested in teaching with and talking about them. Instead I was in The Hague for a conference presentation. Ah well, timing, right? In any case, I did have a part in the initial assignment incoming students had to do and also in trying to demystify reading a graphic novel for first-time readers. If you are interested in hearing what I sound like, you can find an introductory video for this book where I go through the basic mechanics of reading comics here.

In any case, this book was originally published as individual comic books, and it won the Eisner Award for Best Limited Series. Its plot follows Bras de Olivias Dominguez, an aspiring author who writes newspaper obituaries. He is described as a "miracle baby" who was born under unusual and difficult circumstances. His father is an internationally acclaimed and awarded novelist who casts a large shadow. We get to see multiple moments in Bras's life, and each chapter is set at a different age, and in magic realistic fashion, at the end of each chapter Bras meets an untimely (and often surprising) end. Unlike the multiple deaths of Kenny, these events only highlight the themes of life and love in the main narrative. 
This book could easily be described as nostalgic or melodramatic, but I think that its emotional nuances and fantastic artwork raise it beyond treacly sentimentalism. It is a beautiful and evocative book, full of relatable moments and fantastic imagery. It hits on multiple ages, as well, and there is something in here that speaks to the innocence and realizations of childhood, the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships, the worries and joys of parenthood, and the awareness and (hopefully) acceptance that comes with old age.
This book's creators, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are twin brothers who have been making comics together since childhood. Moon is probably best known for his collaboration with writer Matt Fraction, Casanova, a science fiction spy story, and his Eisner Award winning webcomic Sugarshock. Bá also collaborated on Casanova and is well known for drawing The Umbrella Academy, a celebrated tale of super-powered siblings written by rocker Gerard Way. The brothers collectively blog about their works here.

As might be expected from an award-winning graphic novel, its reviews are excellent. The Comics Alliance's Chris Murphy called it "one of those books we should set aside specific adjectives for, to be used only when a book this incredible is created." NPR's Glen Weldon summed up that it "invites repeated, even recursive reading, as elements in early chapters find themselves echoed or entirely inverted as the book comes to a close. It's a book with the subtle intelligence to deal with death in a way that affirms, and delineates, life." comicrevolution wrote that it consisted of "magnificent storytelling and artwork that is equally stellar."

Daytripper was published by Vertigo.